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Productivity tips for fiction writers

Updated on August 16, 2012

It’s often been said that writing 250 words a day is enough to finish a novel in a year. Of course, most people find that it is more difficult than that. Life has a way of interfering and stopping you in your tracks. The most important thing is to develop a writing habit.

I’ve experimented with several methods myself. The first was to create a spread sheet and log the actual amount of words I write on each project. I found that this did increase my productivity simply because I could tell when I was getting lazy or not!

My next step was to set writing goals. There are three main types

Time Goals

Set the amount of time you intend to spend at your desk writing. This can be fifteen minutes, thirty minutes or more. Many writers have the rule that they simply have to be sitting down with the computer or typewriter in front of them. Even if they don’t write a thing as long as they are sitting there they are fulfilling their goal. Of course, it is hard to spend fifteen minutes in front of a computer with word open and not actually write anything!

I think many busy writers find time goals the best approach. If you don’t have unlimited time then word count goals can be intimidating - what if you go through a difficult patch and only produce half your word count?

Word count Goals

Sitting down every day and writing X numbers of words is the other common method. It has its drawbacks but by regularly producing writing you certainly finish novels and short stories much quicker!

The drawback is that people go through life events that can stop them in their tracks. That happens to everyone. And, sometimes it is simply harder than others to get a specific number of words out onto the screen.

So, a word count goal of a thousand words might take half an hour one day, and five hours the next!

Production Goals

Much less common, many people use production goals - they want to write so many stories a month, or a novel in six months. I think these are useful, but there is always a tendency to either try to produce too much work, or to procrastinate.

Before you set a goal...

Depending on what kind of goal you intend to set (time, word count, or production) the first thing you should do is log your performance. If you intend to set a time goal, record the actual amount of time you spend writing before you set the goal. That will allow you to work out what is reasonable for yourself!

Setting a goal to write 5000 words a day when the most you have ever written in a day is 300 words is not reasonable.

Recording how well you are doing

Once you have your goal it becomes important to record whether you are actually meeting it or not. For example writing down how many minutes or words you write every day on a spread sheet.

Asking your family for help

Tell your friends and family what you are doing. Instead of demanding their help, say you are afraid you won’t be able to do it and ask them to nag you if it looks like you are falling off the wagon!

For some reason, they will be quick to tell you that you should get your butt in the chair!

Getting a report buddy

Ask someone else who is a writer if they will be your report buddy. Every week you have to tell them if you have met the grade or not. It is especially helpful if you have to buy them dinner if you fail!

Life Interfering

Building in rest breaks is very important. Rather than have a schedule that says you will write every day, having at least one rest day is very useful. Also a vacation is nice! These scheduled rest breaks allow you to have time with your family and also allow you non guilty time to yourself.

But although these scheduled breaks are important you also need to accept that there are going to be life events that will stop you dead in your track. For example, you might be ill, or there might be a crazy day at work, or a relative or friend may need your support. Rather than doing what many people do - which is to worry, and get stressed, or resent the interruption plan for it before it happens!

Think about how you can reestablish the goals you have set. If life interferes, the first thing you have to do is deal with the problem. Keep the goals you have set at the back of your mind. Then, when you have dealt with the problem - even if it months later - reassess the goals you have set. Can you still do them? Are they reasonable?

In the reassessment it is perfectly OK to ditch the goals and set new ones. If the goals are still reasonable, then you might decide to carry on. Otherwise you might modify the goals, or change the deadlines you have set.

One thing you shouldn’t do is build it up in your mind to the point that if you fail the goals you consider yourself a failure. Don’t try to catch up on the goal if this is unreasonable. Just restart without blaming yourself.

The Success in Failure

Often, even the failure to meet a goal is also a success. If you plan to write two novels and actually write one, then you are still one novel closer to your dream. If you intend to write two thousand words a day and ‘only’ write 750 words, you are still well ahead of where you intended to be.

Now, I know this approach to writing can be controversial. Many people believe that they need to be inspired to write. But I believe you are more likely to become inspired, and to write good prose, if you practice regularly. I hope you will consider setting writing goals for yourself.


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